We’ve been meaning for some time to comment on Jennifer Ryan’s The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. It arrived unexpectedly in August from a friend who clearly understands our taste in reading. An epistolatory novel revolving around the village in the year 19141, we opened it expecting something in the style of Miss Read.
For the most part it was. The plots were all transparent enough that we could guess the outcomes, and quotidian enough to sit comfortably next to the world of Thrush Green (we never did learn to love Faiarcre). Now and then though it defied expectations. The end of the first act saw it veer sharply into realism, and while that should have jarred with the soap-bubble existence of the Chibury women, it didn’t because the author knew how to pay off on consequences and grow her characters.
It does fall down in plausibility every now and again. We know that much of the story owes to various real-life experiences reported to the author, and don’t doubt these things did happen; on the page though, some of them strain credulity. As we’ve said before, reality is no defence for fiction. Sometimes the mechanics in place to sustain a plot simply overburden a story, and occasionally we saw that happen here. For our part we could have done with more from little Sylvie and less about the swapped babies (though we hasten to add that Clara Palfry was a wonderful creation but.
None of that should detract from the narrative craft on display Ryan handles a broad cast with deftness and balance, rounding out all of them just enough to leave the impression that we have got to know all of these characters equally. Each volta or turn brings with it unlooked for depths, with the result that even when predictions about plots and characters are met there are still ideas to be explored and deeps unplumbed yet.
Perhaps most satisfying was Ryan’s refusal to give into the fairytale ending when it presented itself. It would have been the easy and obvious choice with a book so comfortably readable as The Chilbury Ladies Choir, but at no stage does Ryan take it. Instead we get enough hopefulness and enough mundanity to ground the story of the Chilbury Ladies Choir solidly in a world recognisably our own. The result is an optimistic story with a warm heart, that makes for light but satisfying reading.
The paucity of tenors and basses it turns out is a problem that echoes through the ages, and while here there is undeniable poignancy in the SSA status of the choir, we can’t help finding that more than a little gratifying, especially when it makes for such a good narrative. And it’s nice to know we at All Saints’ are in good company. After all, even choirs are only human.